The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

MoMA turns itself inside out for the 21st century

A lounge is part of the expansion at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Iwan Baan)

The Museum of Modern Art in New York used to function like holy writ. The things it chose to show were not just examples of modern art and design. They were claims staked, standards set, guiding lights. Together, they sent a clear message to the world about modernism: This was important. This counted. The rest did not.

Because MoMA had the biggest collection with the best examples of the most important modern artists and designers, the edicts it broadcast had unrivaled authority. MoMA not only had a story to tell, the people telling that story were confident and powerful.

If this era at MoMA has been drawing to a close for a while, it is now officially over.

Closed to the public throughout this summer and early fall, MoMA is about to reopen after a costly expansion. Ten years in the planning, it comes 15 years after the last addition, which was designed by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi.

Architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, working with Gensler, have rearranged the museum’s internal structure. On the museum’s west side, they have added a new wing which allows for more than 30,000 square feet of new gallery space. But the extra space, according to the museum’s chief curators, is not really the point.

“Everything we’re doing is actually almost independent of an expansion,” says Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture. “The way this expansion differs so much from any prior expansion — and we’ve done plenty — is that it is simultaneously a physical expansion and an absolute rethink of the curatorial approach.”

This rethink is also a kind of reversion, according to the museum’s longtime director, Glenn Lowry. It brings the museum back in line with founding director Alfred Barr’s original vision of the museum as a laboratory, a space for experiment.

In the broadest terms, MoMA wants to step back from the embarrassing business of telling big, confident stories about art and culture. It wants instead, says Temkin, to tell “short stories” — propositions that are provisional but fruitfully interconnected.

“The basic fact,” says Stuart Comer, MoMA’s chief curator of media and performance, “is that I don’t think any of us believes any longer that there is a singular history. There are a lot of different histories, and how you weave those together is an evolution, an ongoing process. So we’re approaching the collection less like a canon and more like a conversation.”

“When we added in 2004 and 1984,” says Temkin, “it was just more room to do exactly what we did, the same way we did it.” This expansion, by contrast, is about rethinking MoMA’s great strength: its permanent collection — the almost 200,000 works on which it lavishes tens of millions of dollars every year, acquiring, cataloguing, storing, studying and conserving, even though most of it is never displayed.

Tapping into this unrivaled resource means embracing a state of continuous flux — not the easiest thing for an art museum. The collection galleries will be rotated every six to nine months, so that more works will be put on display.

Just as significantly — and with huge implications for its administration — the museum has been working hard to integrate curatorial departments that once acted like separate fiefdoms, and at times almost like separate museums.

Rethinking how the staff collaborate has been a challenge, according to Martino Stierli, chief curator of architecture and design. “Before, each department had its respective galleries. . . . Now, there’s a constant conversation between all the departments. That’s new and it’s different. But it’s also been extremely productive and an enormous learning experience for all of us.”

The ground floor of the new MoMA will be free. Even those who remain outside can get a taste of MoMA’s art, because a big, street-facing window will allow them to see into a large gallery.

There will be multiple routes leading from the ticketing desk to the galleries, so that audiences will be able to take different paths through the museum from the outset. The galleries themselves are now less regular in size and height than they were. More windows and openings will offer glimpses into spaces on different levels.

At the heart of the collection galleries will be a double-height space called the Studio for live performances and programming, so that dance, sound works, film and performance will be at the core of the museum’s display, not cordoned off. A second-floor space, called Platform, will focus on education — but with a playful, interactive approach.

“The museum is not the place where we’re going to give a lesson,” says Christophe Cherix, chief curator of drawings and prints. “It’s a place where you can experiment, understand and make your own opinion. We’re totally committed to scholarship, as we’ve always been. But it’s just a different way to share this collection. It’s not about telling you ‘this is important, this is less,’ or ‘that was made because of that.’ ”

When MoMA reopens, it will feature three temporary exhibitions. One, devoted to Betye Saar, will feature works on paper relating to Saar’s autobiographical sculpture, “Black Girl’s Window.” Made in 1969, “Black Girl’s Window” is part of the permanent collection, so the show exemplifies the new approach of blurring the lines between temporary shows and collection displays.

A second show will feature another African American, Pope.L. His sculpture, performance, video, photography and installation art will be the subject of a trio of presentations this fall at MoMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Public Art Fund.

The third — and by far the biggest — exhibition will be a display of abstract art in different media by leading Latin American modernists, including Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and Jesús Rafael Soto. “Sur moderno: journeys of abstraction” will highlight works given to MoMA over many years by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros . Scattered among the Latin American art will be a handful of works from Europe and Russia, including Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie.”

Tremendous power used to be invested in the individuals heading each curatorial department at MoMA. Those chief curators are now at pains to stress that their displays are a team effort — the result of contributions by curators from many backgrounds, at all levels, in all departments.

“We want,” says Cherix, “to show contradictory perspectives.”

Some who remember the old MoMA resent all the changes it has undergone in recent decades. They long for the days when the museum presented its canon of modernist masterpieces (which were also, of course, overwhelmingly by white male artists) in galleries that felt almost like hallowed spaces.

Temkin and her colleagues are expecting complaints. “I enlarged my mailbox for October,” she laughs.

First-time visitors make up more than half of the total audience at MoMA. Conscious that many come expecting to see certain masterpieces (for instance, Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” or Matisse’s “The Red Studio”), the chief curators drew up a list of the works that, as Cherix put it, “people really want to see if they’ve traveled the world to come to MoMA.”

“We got it down,” says Temkin, “to fewer than we would have thought” — about 15 works. Those iconic works will stay on display.

But if everything else is more or less replaceable, says Cherix, “why not change everything around? Why not allow people not to think about those works just as postcards? Because when we always show the same works the same way, people don’t feel the need to come back, and those works are not really alive.”

In the new setup, continues Cherix, “every work has a chance of finding its way to the galleries. That’s an important change.”

Temkin recognizes the relativity of aesthetic judgment and welcomes the evolution of the limited curatorial viewpoint. She stresses that her idea of what art is best is not the same as her assistant curator’s idea; it’s just her perspective.

“The polyphony among the curators’ perspectives now is aligned with the polyphony of what we’re thinking about art history,” she says.

Public reaction to the new MoMA will no doubt combine a bit of polyphony with some cacophony.

The new Museum of Modern Art opens Oct. 21. 11 W. 53rd St., New York.

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